Category Archives: Movies

The Princess Bride: A Book and Movie Made of Wuv, Twu Wuv

the_princess_bride_first_editionMy husband and I have a long-standing conversation regarding movie adaptations of books. Should you read the book first or watch the movie first? After years of discussion, countless examples as evidence for both sides, we came to the conclusion. It happened because of Game of Thrones. I had not yet read any of the books and he had. Let’s just say the Red Wedding was a very big, fantastic, horrible surprise to me. For my husband, not so much. Because of that episode of Game of Thrones, we both agreed that it is best to see the movie (or TV show) and then read the book, because, we agreed, the book will almost always be better. So it’s important to go to a movie and be able to enjoy it instead of sit there comparing it to the book you remember reading. That way, you can enjoy yourself while watching the movie, then read the book after and enjoy it just as much because? The book is almost always better. 

It’s extremely rare when I think a screen adaptation of a book (or books) is better than the book. I actually can’t think of one example… oh wait. Legend of the Seeker was about fifty times better than the first fifty pages I was able to get through of Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule. That exception aside, it’s almost just as rare when I like the movie just as much as the book. And at the top of that list is The Princess Bride, book by William Goldman, movie directed by the great Rob Reiner.

imgresIs it worth your time? It’s absolutely worth your time, and that’s really all I have to say by way of argument for you to read it. If you loved the movie, you will find a multitude of reasons to love the book (although alas, we can’t see Mandy Patinkin, but you can just imagine him as Inigo Montoya). However, I’ve heard some blaspheme whispered near and far about how the book was okay, but the introduction was weird.

Let me dispel any fears by saying the introduction is a work of genius. In it, Goldman tells a fictitious account of how the book got made. It’s not even real. Who writes a fictitious introduction? No one that I know of. When I first started reading the introduction, I thought, “Is this quirky little beginning really Goldman? Is this part of the book? What’s going on?” So to you I say this: just enjoy. It’s Goldman poking fun at himself and the classic needy writer stereotype.

This holiday season, do yourself a favor and curl up with a classic. “What’s it about? Fencing. Fighting. True Love. Strong Hate. Harsh Revenge. A Few Giants. Lots of Bad Men. Lots of Good Men. Five or Six Beautiful Women. Beasties Monstrous and Gentle. Some Swell Escapes and Captures. Death, Lies, Truth, Miracles, and a Little Sex. In short, it’s about everything.”

Oh, and:

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Oh, The Horror! How Horror Fiction Differs from Horror TV and Movies

I’ve already got a confession to make, and it’s the very first line of post. This is actually one of my biggest pet peeves: when people assume horror fiction is the exact same as horror movies. But can I blame them? Both are the horror genre, so why wouldn’t someone assume they were the same?


First, let’s take a look at horror movies. Georges Melies, a French filmmaker, created the very first horror film Manior Du Diable (The Devil’s Castle). It’s about three minutes long, and reminds me of a little bit of Jack the Giant Killer from 1962. Manior Du Diable is a quirky exploration of the magic of camera work and editing at the time, but it’s also a great frame of reference in which to see horror: horror deals with the supernatural, things in which we don’t quite understand, and the unexplained.

But the actual definition of horror is much different. Horror means a very strong feeling of fear, dread, and shock, or anything that causes feelings of fear, dread, and shock (Merriam Webster).

Unlike Manior Du Diable, more contemporary horror classics focus on the later part of the definition: shock. Friday the 13th. The Exorcist. Saw. We cringe in the theater seats at these movies saying, “Oh no. Don’t do that!” and “Oh no, don’t go in there!” We cover our eyes and peek out between our fingers. We see characters getting their limbs torn/ripped/chopped/pulled/blown off. Blood and gore are a cornerstone for many a horror film, in particular the B-movie variety. Some films even go so far as including triggering subject matter, like rape and violation. But most horror movies are going after the same effect: to make the audience jump in their seats, to scare audiences. A lot of thought, time, and care is put into production in order to achieve just the right music, lighting, and make-up effects for the big scary moments and the big reveals in order to make the audience all but pee their pants.

Horror literature seems to take the definition of horror more figuratively, deeply exploring the things we find scary or shocking, things we might not be able to explain, and examines them in depth. Instead of going for the screams, horror writers go more for effect. Where horror film may adopt the literal definition of the word horror (fear, dread, shock), horror literature seems to capture more of the thrill. Part of that could also be a byproduct of the medium. While movies are a more sensory experience with sight and sound, with books, the reader is allowed to imagine as much or as little as what’s on the page. It takes time to read a book, and the mind has more time to come up with possibilities and presumptions about what’s coming. More telling, popular horror literature deals with different subject matter. While a movie’s big focus may be the blood and gore, horror lit still needs to stand on its own two feet as a story. That means strong characters and character development, some element of the fantastic, whether it be a human hell-bent on murder or a vampire, and a bare-bones foundation of a story that is more than a cheap thrill.

I’d argue it goes much deeper still. It comes down to a question: what is the purpose of a horror movie and what is the purpose of a book in the horror genre? In movies, we are given very little time to empathize with our characters before the action begins. Because it isn’t necessary. When a moviegoer pays their money to see a horror flick, they are banking on the promise that they will get a good scare. When a book buyer pays money for a horror book, they pay for a more cerebral experience: they will spend hours with the characters, get to know them, and feel what they feel as the book progresses. In a horror movie, we are watching horrible things happen to the characters. In a horror book, we are experiencing the fantastic, the uncomfortable, right along with them.

I should note that I’m not trying to diss horror films. One of my favorite movies is a horror film (The Thing). And there are many exceptions to the points I’ve brought up here. There are some horror movies that I find downright artful (Let the Right One In and 28 Days Later… come to mind), and go beyond the stereotypical horror genre. And there are certainly horror books where the only purpose is to shock and cause dread to the readers. But I’d argue you’re going to find that those are the few and far between.

The horror genre is more saturated with books like The Shining by Stephen King that, while dealing with horror elements, also deals with Jack Torrance’s fear of succumbing to alcoholism. You care about Jack Torrance as you read The Shining. The Walking Dead, the long-running comic book series and the TV show, doesn’t just deal in zombies. The Walking Dead is about what happens to humanity and how humanity changes in the wake of near-extinction and the constant threat of death. I Am Legend (the book by Richard Matheson, one of my favorite books) is about the loneliness of being the last of your kind. Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice has less to do with vampires and more to do with the question of what it means to be mortal. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is not about the monster, but what it means to be human, the power of science, and the power of creating life from death.

From Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein
From Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein

Finally, the most notable difference between horror movies and horror literature has to do with who the bad guy really is. In most horror films, there is a clear line between the protagonists and antagonists. Us vs. Them. Predator vs. Prey. One force hunts the other force down. Horror books, I’d argue, more so examine the darkness that comes from within, and duality of our own nature. We can be both the good guy and the bad guy. We can have good intentions (just as Victor Frankenstein did in bringing back the dead), but instead create a monster of ourselves. What horror literature looks to achieve is to strike empathy within the reader in the most dire and uncomfortable of circumstances, not necessarily to shock or scare, but to say, “Here’s the darkness, let’s go in and look around together.”

Write Short Stories, Not Small Stories

As a dyed in the wool novelist, I’ve had to work hard to learn to write short stories. My early attempts always came off as… flat. To fix this problem, I experimented with character, with plot, with setting, and even dabbled some with poetic prose. However, nothing I tried made my stories come to life. I would eventually learn that my problem wasn’t with any of those aspects of writing, though all would improve over the years as I practiced my craft. The real issue was with my fundamental understanding of what actually makes a story powerful.

All stories, no matter their length, get their power from manipulating their readers’ emotions. As David Farland taught me, readers are seeking an emotional exercise when they pick up a book. It’s why we organize our bookstores based on the emotions we seek to satisfy. Characters, setting, plot, and prose are all vehicles for establishing reader empathy and then using that connection to twist the heart strings.

In longer works, we have the luxury of taking our time to build an emotional connection. That room to grow is what allows us to hit many different emotional beats over the course of a novel. However, when writing a short story, you need to go straight for the feels. By deciding early on what emotional impact you are aiming for, you are able to ensure that everything works towards those big emotional punches.

Just because we are writing a short story doesn’t mean that we are writing a simple story. We still need memorable characters, sexy settings, and plenty of conflict and change. There must be a beginning, a middle, a climax, and a denouement. We can’t sacrifice any of those elements in the name of saving word count. Nor are we writing small stories. Rather, the best short fiction tackles big emotions, big problems but in a shorter format. I like to think of it as a distillation of story rather than a reduction in word count. Like a good whiskey, a work of short fiction will retain all the elements of its precursor, but in a more potent form.

As is often true, the best way to learn how to write powerful short stories is to study the work of masters. In the case of short fiction, I can think of few better and more accessible than the writers at Pixar. They regularly turn out four or five minute animated features that are not only complete stories, but emotionally satisfying as well. In fact, this track record is one of the main reasons I’d go see just about any new Pixar movie. One of the most potent works of short fiction they’ve published is the first ten minutes of the full length movie, Up. While it was designed to be a prologue to Carl and Russell’s story, those ten minutes have been consistently rated as Pixar’s best short. Below, I’ve embedded the second half of that sequence. But be warned, it’s a tear jerker.

Take a minute to grab a tissue and then we’ll break this sequence down. Pixar spends a little over the first minute showing us the story of a happy couple. They’re married, fix up an old house, and have a pleasantly domestic life. Their introduction as characters is extremely relatable because it resonates with many of the audiences’ own desires and/or experiences. Many of us want to find love, like they did, and live a happy life, like they clearly do. At time 1:07, the characters begin their first try/fail cycle in their pursuit of a “happily married life.” They want to have children. End of act 1.

Pixar spends the next 17 seconds building the baby anticipation before hitting us with the first emotional punch. Without resorting to a single word, the writers tell us that not only did these characters fail to have a child, but it isn’t going to happen. Then they do something critical. Instead of rushing on to the next try/fail cycle, the writers take the time to drive their point home. They show the characters in pain, and in so doing we experience their sense of grief alongside them. However, the story isn’t done.

At a 1:46, Ellie and Carl decide that their infertility won’t get in the way of their “happily married” life-goal. This builds empathy because people who suffer and then pick themselves back up are admirable. They decide to live out their childhood dream of going to Paradise Falls. This is their second try/fail cycle.

As Ellie and Carl work to save up the money they need to travel, life keeps getting in the way. Years pass and they eventually forget about their dream for a time. That is, until Carl rediscovers the goal one day and goes to the trouble to arrange everything as a surprise for his wife. Try/fail cycle #2 ends in success, right? Well, no. Too much time has passed and Ellie is now too sick to go. Act 2 ends at time 3:26.

The climax of this story is Ellie’s death at time 3:55. In the remaining 24 seconds, we experience Carl’s melancholy and sense of loss along with him in the denouement. We see his emotional state in the emptiness of the church and his return to a dark home. We as the audience know that the movie is just beginning, but it feels like an emotionally satisfying, bitter-sweet ending as well.

Pixar is able to tell a complete, romantic tragedy story arc in four minutes and twenty seconds of film because they didn’t try to tell a small story. They didn’t pull any emotional punches, nor did they leave any critical story elements out. Rather, their skill allowed them to know how to quickly establish audience empathy, and then play on that empathy with emotional highs and lows. They reached into our hearts and gave our heartstrings a good, firm tug. In so doing, they told a big story in a small space.

Magical Realism: Where Fantasy and Literary Fiction Meet

When most people hear magical realism, they immediately think of Gabriel García Márquez and his book One Hundred Years of Solitude. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Márquez tells the story of the fictional town of Macondo and the generations of families that live there. It includes people coming back from the dead, a plague of insomnia, and thunderstorms of yellow flowers. If not Márquez, many know of contemporary writer Isabel Allende, arguably the most popular current writer of magical realism. But, some well-known books, authors, and movies also fit into the magical realism category – ones you might not expect. Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Sherman Alexie, Haruki Murakami have all written magical realism. Movies like The Green Mile, Chocolat (as well as the book by the same name by Joanne Harris) and Big Fish (also a book by Daniel Wallace) can be grouped in the genre as well as the TV series The Leftovers on HBO. Books like Life of Pi, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Lovely Bones, and 11/22/63 can also fit into the genre of magical realism.

Then what is magical realism exactly? Is it fantasy? Literary fiction? The simple definition of magical realism is when a story is set in the real world, but the people in the world accept that some magical elements exist – when magical elements are a natural part of the world as we know it and are accepted as such. Stories in this genre may include retellings of fables and cultural myths to bring them back into contemporary social relevance, such as the book The Alchemist. Latin American writer Alejo Carpentier coined the phrase “lo real maravilloso” or “the marvelous real,” but Maggie Bowers is often credited as the originator of Latin American Realism, from which all magical realism stems.

When considering the definition, it becomes clear just how broad and inclusive magical realism really is. It’s also a genre that tends to overlap with other genres. Many books in the magical realism genre are also part of other genres, usually literary fiction and fantasy. There aren’t very many set rules as to what makes a book magical realism, but there are a few.

One of the rules or exclusions of magical realism is surrealism, a different genre that has more to do with psychology and the mind. Magical realism deals with the material, tangible world. Another widely accepted rule of magical realism is that the story takes place in the world as we know it, and the characters have the same needs and limitations as we do. This differs from fantasy where the setting is typically a far-away land and magic is wide-spread and known, and tends to be a power that comes from within. Magical realism simply adds a magical element into the story, such as a man with giant wings (“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel García Márquez) or an epidemic makes an entire city go suddenly blind (Blindness by José Saramago).

Magical realism presents a very interesting opportunity for literary fiction and fantasy authors. Authors can enjoy a blending of both worlds by creating a playful and unorthodox story that sparks readers’ imaginations.

Recommended reading to examine magical realism in different cultures:

  1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  2. The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
  3. Blindness by José Saramago
  4. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
  5. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  6. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  7. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer